Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
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Posts from — March 2006

Who you lookin’ at?

You know how it is. You take a shortcut and end up further away from your destination than you would have been had you stuck to your original route. But sometimes it pays off.

Although it’s hard to believe that I hadn’t seen these before – for those who know the area, Cambridge (UK!) is pretty flat – I bumped into these little beauties taking a short cut to a little village where I live. It’s unusual to see such contrasting technologies literally side-by-side.

Unless, of course, the windmill happens to be powering the mast. Now, that would be neat.

March 24, 2006   1 Comment

Skyping: An anthropology…

How intrusive do you feel when you ring someone up on Skype? Or, like me, do you fire up a chat screen and tentatively say ‘hi’ instead? What is it about actually phoning someone on their computer? I mean, how is it different to calling them on their landline, or mobile? Is a Skype chat, or MSN chat for that matter, the PC equivalent of sending a text message? What’s wrong with a virtual nudge?

I for one feel a bit rude if I just randomly phone someone on Skype, even though they’ve agreed to share their contact details with me. Maybe it’s because I know they may be working. But is that any worse than phoning them on their mobile? They could be out, or watching a film, or eating – disturbing is disturbing, whatever the circumstances and whatever tool you use.

A few other Skype-type things that I wonder about when I have nothing better to do, or when I can’t sleep at night:

How do you politely end a call which isn’t costing anybody anything?

Is it insecurity which drives people to display the number of contacts they have?

Is there any logic behind profile photos (or distorted human/animal-spliced images – you know who you are, Justin). What does this say about people? And should we avoid sharing our contact details with them?

How, why, when and how often are people drifting around on-line in ‘invisible’ mode? And should we be worried?

What do most of the little messages mean which people choose to display next to their contact names? (And don’t ask me what mine means, either)

When people say they’re Busy or Away, are they really?

Would anyone at Skype HQ be willing to give me money to find answers to these questions? I have many others if they’re interested.

On the plus side, though, at least someone being off-Skype doesn’t raise suspicion. Switch off your mobile phone at your peril…

March 23, 2006   1 Comment

Throwing ‘precaution’ to the wind

Over 150 years in the making, global warming – a theory first aired by a Swedish scientist back in the 1890′s – is well underway. In the midst of all the argument and bickering, one thing is clear. The planet is getting warmer, and getting warmer rather quickly. Two degrees is apparently the ‘critical point’ where irreversible damage will take place. The problem is that predicted rises fluctuate wildly between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade. We could be in a spot of bother.

While scientists do agree that the earth is warming up, they disagree on why. Some say it’s down to human activity, others that it’s a natural planetary cycle. Funny, because the facts do seem to speak for themselves. Since the industrial revolution, and the start of our addiction to burning fossil fuels, temperatures have soared in relative terms. And these are actual temperatures – real measurements – undisputed.

Is now really the best time to dilly-dally around? If human activity is potentially the cause then why wait for conclusive proof, which will probably never come? Or, if it does, too late? True, we won’t end our reliance on fossil fuels overnight, but it’s clearly unhealthy economically – if not environmentally – so where’s the logic in simply continuing the debate at the expense of taking action? What happened to ‘erring on the side of caution’? Fine, let’s make a real effort to reduce greenhouse emissions, and if it turns out not to be the cause of global warming, then we can just start burning again. Nothing lost, surely? But certainly all to gain.

A couple of years ago some colleagues of mine at Fauna & Flora International were working on the interestingly titled ‘Precautionary Principle‘. It really makes quite a lot of sense.

Precaution – the “precautionary principle” or “precautionary approach” – is a response to uncertainty, in the face of risks to health or the environment. In general, it involves acting to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm, despite lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm

It makes so much sense, why can’t we apply it to climate change? Perhaps it’s a little too obvious. Perhaps another 20 years of research is in order…

March 15, 2006   2 Comments

Sustainability: Who’s the Daddy?

No doubt one of the most commonly used words in the non-profit sector (sometimes innocently lumped together with other words to make beauties such as sustainable development), sustainability is an interesting concept. It’s perhaps also not a million miles off holding some kind of ‘holy grail’ status, too. Built into nearly every project proposal by default, it remains elusive most of the time. So what’s the big deal?

Donors like to think that their money – and sometimes effort – are going to last way beyond the project cycle (to coin another phrase). In other words, when the money runs out they like to think that things aren’t going to come crashing down. This is kind-of sensible, I’d say. The trouble is, it’s really rather tricky.

For a start, projects are often funded for fairly short periods of time – up to five years if you’re lucky but often two or three (many smaller projects, of course, run for much less). This isn’t long if you’re hoping to create a long-lasting, positive change. Through my own experiences getting muddy on projects, or studying the subject from the comfort of a university campus, this leaves only a limited number of options. Two of they key ones must be:

Create a business model: If you need to make money to keep the project going, then you’re open to market forces. People will only buy crap products “because they’re ethical” for a while, and before they realise that they’re perhaps just that – crap products. Zillions of small businesses around the world fail without having the complexity of being part of a conservation and development project, so achieving financial sustainability is a real challenge. Sadly there aren’t that many success stories.

Factor yourself out of the project: Rather controversial for many larger NGOs, although some actively pursue it. Some research would be nice. Anyway, whether or not a project needs to become ‘commercial’ (see above) keeping costs down is vital if it’s to have any chance of survival. This could mean local staff, local salaries, local overheads, little or no ‘head office’ consultation fees, or people flying left-right-and-centre around the world for no apparent reason, etc. Maybe the best projects create the desired change, and when the experts have long packed their bags and left it’s able to continue running on a shoestring.

Gerald Durrell had the right idea when he said that his dream was to shut down his zoo in Jersey. Of course, he’d then have to go and find something else to do, but that didn’t matter. It would have meant he’d succeeded in his mission to save endangered species, and that was all that mattered to him.

Trying to unite profit and social venture – which I think includes conservation and development projects – doesn’t only worry or challenge me. Plenty of other people are already writing and blogging about it. Let’s hope the debate reaches a useful conclusion. A few more positive outcomes would certainly help us along.

Just paying lip service to the ‘s’ word doesn’t really get us anywhere in the long run.

March 13, 2006   No Comments

The return of the Dark Continent

For centuries Africa was known as the Dark Continent. It was place of mystery, exotic animals, vast wilderness, all manner of beasts, evil spirits, disease, cannibals and pretty much anything else you’d care to imagine. You just have to take a look at this 1838 map to see how little was known of the interior. Although of course it wasn’t that bad (not in every case, anyway) it’s something of a shame that so few places hold such mystery any more. The world has been pretty much explored and explained (and in some cases exploited) and that’s the end of that. Shame the wonderfully named Mountains of the Moon never existed.

Today the words Dark Continent mean something quite different. Over 150 years may have passed since the map was drawn – it’s now been pretty-much filled in – but once the sun sets it’s time to turn back the clock.

Africa at night. Use a little imagination, and the mystery returns…

March 11, 2006   No Comments

Are we really so completely and utterly powerless?

Let me just start off by saying that I’m not one of these people who sees Africa as a desperate, struggling land full of death, famine, disease and misery with little or no hope for the future. There’s plenty of negativity surrounding the continent already. My outlook is much more positive, but there are times when we need to face up to what is happening. One of those times is now… [End]

So, you want to be able top pop down the local supermarket and grab yourself those avocados, strawberries, starfruit, bananas, pineapples, kiwis, cherries, papayas, mangos or lychees any time of year whenever it takes your fancy. And you’ll happily grab that bunch of flowers – flown in especially from Kenya for your convenience the night before – on your way out – along with some of that lovely Ugandan coffee. Isn’t it all so wonderful?

You’re happy that you live in the age of globalisation where so much of what the world has to offer is so conveniently delivered directly to your doorstep. And, thanks to the hard-nosed negotiators and the shear power of the multinationals who fight so hard on your behalf, it’s all available at such an amazingly low price. How on earth do they do it?

Globalisation may bring all manner of exotic produce to our shores, but it also carries with it huge amounts of responsibility. A globalised world is a smaller world. News reaches our TV screens in a matter of minutes and not days. Events thousands of miles away push up the price of petrol at our local garage. A stock market crash leads to a global recession and mass unemployment, and Bert down the road – who knows nothing about the intricicies of global economics, and doesn’t particularly care – loses his job and maybe his home. An attack on a pipeline in Georgia pushes up the price of gas, and suddenly elderly people find themselves unable to keep warm in the winter.

Events far, far away suddenly feel much closer to home.

At the same time what we decide to purchase in our shops, and how we choose to live our lives, has direct impact on people living on the ‘other’ side of the world. Governments – who we vote in – give unfair (and in some cases downright illegal) subsidies which ‘help’ push third world farmers out of business. Carbon emissions drive global warming, drowning small island communities, causing drought and floods and reeking havoc with the weather across the globe. Small-scale coffee growers live at the mercy of people they’ve never met getting together and deciding where to set wholesale coffee prices.

Things aren’t right in the global order, but often things just tick along and people don’t really pay much attention. A few thousand people die here or there, a drought occurs here or there, a war is fought here or there… As long as they can get their starfruit, why should they care?

Famine once again grips parts of Africa. Tens of millions of people are on the edge. Aid workers don’t even want to think what might happen if the rains fail again this spring. The international community once again drags its heals – this famine was hardly unexpected. Out of a requested $138 million, agencies are still over $100 million short. Can this really all be happening again?

As a citizen of the global community, I feel totally powerless to all of this. It’s all too easy to point the finger at national governments. After all, this has to be someone’s fault, doesn’t it?

The reality is that not all the money – or will – in the world can make it rain.

But why do the majority of people appear to continually ‘accept’ what’s happening and merrily get on with their lives regardless? Is is because they don’t care, or simply don’t know what’s happening? Or is it because, like me, they haven’t got a bloody clue what they can do about it? Can someone please tell me what I can do about it? It’s at times like these that I can relate to the activist/protest mentality.

If we want to live in a globalised world and reap all the benefits that it brings, then we also need to learn to take the rough with the smooth and take our fair share of responsibility for what goes on in it. That means compassionately and ethically, as well as economically.

And that goes for when it doesn’t directly effect us, too. We’re either a citizen of the global community or we’re not.

March 2, 2006   1 Comment